On “Hava Nagila”

A still from Hava Nagila (the Movie), directed by Roberta Grossman, which premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July 2012. Photo copyright Jenny Jimenez.

I am a music snob. People know this about me, and I deserve the title.  I have said hurtful things in the past, and if you were on the receiving end of any of my snobbery, I apologize (unless I was right).

My snobbery extends to Jewish music, as well.  My master’s thesis, after all, is entirely about the history and meanings of contemporary klezmer, a musical genre descended from the instrumental music of Eastern European Jews.

So, in preparation for my wedding last weekend, one question loomed larger than any other: what to do about “Hava Nagila?”

I won’t recap the entirety of the song’s history, ubiquity and supposed fall from favor, but it is fair to say that I fall into the camp of concerned listeners who hear it as a schlocky piece of music that has come to stand in for a much richer repertoire of celebratory Jewish tunes.  But people expect it.  After a few fraught exchanges with our wedding DJ and extended consultation with fellow music snobs, I came to the following conclusion: the DJ could begin with the version of “Hava Nagila” he’d originally proposed—the beginning of a pretty canned medley of Hebrew songs—so long as he faded into my preferred tracks. The opening “Hava Nagila” got people dancing in a circle and cued our friends to lift me and my bride up in our chairs, but by the time I was safe on the ground again, I was able to dance to Jewish music I actually enjoy.

So here are the tunes I picked:

This is a live video of Maxwell Street Klezmer Band> performing “Chusn Kalleh Mazl Tov.” I picked a studio recording of the track from their 2002 album Old Roots New World.

And a personal favorite, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars doing “Lieberman Funky Freylekhs,” from the 2002 album, Brotherhood of Brass. Just hit the play button below.

Liebermann Funky Freylekhs

Posted on October 24, 2012

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